Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced the NYC subway would return to 24/7 service, following a shutdown that was supposedly about cleaning to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but coincidently followed an act of arson, allegedly by a homeless person who has been charged with murder, that left a subway train car destroyed and a train operator dead.
Multiple sources told The City that authorities discovered a charred shopping cart with a possible accelerant inside the second car of a northbound No. 2 train that filled with smoke and flames as it pulled into the Central Park North-110th Street station at 3:14 a.m — around the same time as three other fires in and around the subway system.
More recently, another train operator has been suspended for photographing homeless people in the subway, and putting out the photos on Twitter.
Recently there has been an article calling for the very limited number of public restrooms in the subway to be re-opened.
The article is exclusively about having the subway be the place that homeless people use the bathroom. Not about having subway restrooms for use by anyone else. And not about having restroom facilities available anywhere else for homeless people to use the bathroom.
If not for past debts and pension increases, along with the need for more and more city workers to do the same (or less) work during the DeBlasio Administration (cops, teachers), the city might have the $ required to rent storefronts with restrooms and other services specifically for the homeless throughout the city. Then it would just be a matter of deciding in whose neighborhood to site them. The City apparently believes the subway is that neighborhood. The subway and jail — that’s the de facto homeless policy, except for now not jail. Elsewhere the policy is exclude and ship away to somewhere else.
But then trying, and failing, to figure out what to do with troubled and troubling people like this has a very, very long history in New York – and elsewhere. One filled with failure and folly. Yet you have people today saying the same things, proposing the same things, that were tried and failed years ago. If you are under 50, don’t know this history, and are prepared to face some tough realities, read on and follow the links below.
Public restrooms in New York, and elsewhere, have become difficult if not impossible to site, because of the troubled population that eventually comes to use them – and sometimes take them over. That is why any discussion about them is never really about having places for people to go to the bathroom.
There have been repeated attempts to install public toilets in New York, including a decades long saga of street furniture contracts that eventually led to a mere handful of such toilets being installed.
A decade ago, New York City made a deal for 20 automated public toilets — APTs, for short — to be installed in all five boroughs, at the behest of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. They are squat, rectangular metal huts outfitted with the essentials: a low toilet, a shiny sink with running water, panic buttons. If a ticket booth and an Amtrak bathroom got together, this would be the result. A quarter gets you entry and 15 undisturbed minutes. Once you exit, the doors clamp shut and a mechanism releases a spray of disinfectant.
Three were installed. Two more have been put in place but haven’t been switched on yet. The other 15 are still sitting in a warehouse in Maspeth, Queens. Other global cities have public restrooms everywhere. Yet the women (and the more decorous men) of America’s cultural capital still end up pleading with a restaurant hostess or Starbucks manager or hotel clerk or, God forbid, heading into Penn Station. Failing that, some of us just find a shadowy nook and pray that there aren’t any cops around. But the lack of public toilets, it turns out, is not for lack of trying.
Like the city’s public restroom problem, the city’s homeless problem goes back decades – centuries. And for many of those centuries the solution was found in forced institutionalization and on one particular street – the Bowery.
My father in law told me that back in the day if you were drunk and/or stoned and causing a problem, and you didn’t have anyone to come pick you up and take you home, the police would just put you in a cruiser and drop you off on the Bowery. For 100 years, but before any of our times, the city had a specific street/district just for addicted and troubled men who were allowed to stay outside institutions. Such men were considered just a part of city life.
According to Pete Hamil, at about the same time the Bartel Prichard Square entrance to Prospect Park was another, more localized hangout and unofficial shelter for those addicts and alcoholics who were no longer wanted at home.
The institutionalization often happened on islands, away from most of the city’s population, where mental hospitals and institutions for the contagious sick were also placed. Roosevelt Island was, at one time, Welfare Island.
There was a farming work colony on Staten Island.
More than a century ago, New York City’s many abandoned children, the equivalent of today’s runaways and throwaways, were once shipped west on Orpan Trains to live and work with families on farms.
At one time New York City also shipped homeless men out of the city, and had a large-scale homeless camp in Orange County, NY. One aspect of having a Republican Mayor from 1994 to 2012 is that like the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, Camp LaGuardia was shut down.
Every day, a bus picks up homeless men off the streets of New York City and takes them 70 miles out into the countryside to a shelter, in a practice that has been going on quietly since the Depression, when homeless people were called Bowery bums and fresh air was the solution to just about all ills. The 1,001-bed Camp LaGuardia is New York City’s biggest homeless shelter – and the only one surrounded by farms and trees – but its very existence is probably a surprise to many lifelong New Yorkers.
Now the city is closing it down. While 73-year-old Camp LaGuardia was born of good intentions and what was then considered progressive thinking, some activists disapprove of it as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind answer to the city’s homeless problem. City Hall says its decision to shut down the shelter was more practical: It is too far outside New York, and the city wants to move away from temporary shelters to subsidized housing.
Starting in the 1970s the suburbs started dumping the mentally ill, addicted, ex-offenders, etc. into the city.
“I never knew how every bum knew to come to Grand Central,” Connor said. “I figured that, like me, they just dug the place. Then I was dating a girl whose father was a sergeant for the Middletown police department in Connecticut. That town had an insane asylum or mental hospital or whatever politically correct term there is for those places… Whenever someone got out of the place, they were driven to a train station on the Metro-North line and given a one-way ticket to Grand Central.
“I figure a lot of hospitals did that, and that was how they all wound up in the city.”
Later, as we sat at the bar, Connor told me about the Hammers of Hell.
“That’s what I called the bathroom that was on the lower level. I used to go to a bar in Grand Central called Pete Smith’s Hall of Fame. It is a boutique now or something. Anyway, Pete Smith’s had no bathroom.”
“If you had to go, you had to use the bathroom on the lower level. You would walk in and have to wait for a urinal because all the stalls were taken up by men jerking off. I mean, it was just unbelievable. Guys would be hammering away and no one cared. If I really had to go I would yell, ‘Okay, that can wait. I gotta piss.’ You can’t fathom that scene happening now.”
That article is from 2015. I could absolutely imagine that scene happening now.
In the 1980s many people came to believe, or chose to believe, that people only became addicted or mentally ill because they were homeless, not the other way around. At a time when New York City property was far cheaper and more available, and vastly fewer public dollars were going to debts and public employee pensions, the city set out to use local tax dollars to house the homeless. And immediately ended up with far more homeless people, moving in from elsewhere or moving out of uncomfortable living arrangements, seeking to take advantage of the program.
The Dinkins administration realized early on that its approach to homelessness was not working. As a response, in September 1991, Mayor Dinkins farmed out the job of rethinking homeless policy to a Commission on the Homeless, headed by Andrew Cuomo, the governor’s son (and now an assistant secretary of housing and urban development). In February 1992, the commission released its report, “The Way Home: A New Direction in Social Policy,” which refuted the assumptions that had guided the early Dinkins policy.
The commission forthrightly acknowledged that placing thousands of homeless families into permanent housing contributed to an enormous surge of families entering the shelter system. It also acknowledged that behavioral problems were an important cause of homelessness. It conducted its own extensive survey of homeless individuals and families in the city. “The results were enlightening. The commission found that homelessness is frequently a symptom of some underlying problem, such as lack of job skills or education, a substance-abuse problem, or mental illness. It results when one or more of these problems interact with a number of social and economic factors, including a shortage of affordable housing.” The commission’s data were striking: fully 42 percent of the families surveyed seemed to have either a mental health or drug problem, and no less than 29 percent of adults in shelter families tested positive for illegal drugs.
The commission went even further, arguing that the sociological reality of homelessness in New York was incompatible with a policy of unconditional right to shelter. Advocacy groups had won recognition of such a right in lawsuits they filed against the city and state: first, in 1979, for single men (Callahan v. Carey), then, in 1983, for families (McCain v. Koch).
This followed a prior effort to give the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill and others priority in urban public housing. That 1980s initiative, during the Republican Reagan Administration in Washington (where public housing policy is made), was enthusiastically supported by suburban politicians from jurisdictions with no public housing. But the public housing residents didn’t want the homeless either.
The mission of accommodating homeless families… conflicted with the Housing Authority’s institutional interests, as well as the interests of its tenants. The city’s public housing managers had held “an article of faith for many years that the New York City Housing Authority maintains its reputation as the very best of the large public housing authorities in the nation because of its deliberate policy of an ’economic mix,’” as Sally Hernandez-Piñero, now the authority’s chairman, explains. In order to maintain social stability, the authority has tried to balance the population in its roughly 179,000 apartments at about one-third elderly, one-third working poor, and one-third very-low-income (families on public assistance). But between 1985 and 1991 the mix of entrants into the authority changed drastically. Very-low-income families increased from 32 to 54 percent of total yearly entrants, while the elderly decreased from 49 to 35 percent and the working poor dropped from 19 to 12 percent. Housing Authority officials came to see the homeless referrals as a threat to their long-standing policy of “economic mix.”
Public housing tenants resented the preferential treatment accorded to homeless families. In 1990, Housing Authority projects were home to some 100,000 members of families doubled up in authority units, in addition to their 470,000 authorized residents. These doubled-up residents were eager to apply for public housing vacancies, but found that none would be available until SRT had filled its quota for homeless referrals. Housing Authority tenants did not take kindly to seeing their own “internal homeless” pushed to the back of the line.
By 1990, tenants had become so frustrated that they held public demonstrations protesting the expedited placement of homeless families in public housing.
The homeless also had the right to choose their New York City neighborhood. By the standards of the time I’m not only a Brooklyn homeowner, but also a homeless resident of the buildings around Gramercy Park in Manhattan, where I can’t afford to live. Eventually the city, pressed by courts demanding accommodation of the homeless, started overpaying for apartments to take the homeless, and landlords started evicting poor working tenants for the higher – and guaranteed – incomes the city would provide. The city moved the sole homeless intake center to Hunts Point to deter migrants to the city from showing up and demanding housing, but they found their way there, slept on the floor, and demanded to be accommodated.
In addition to the right of shelter on demand, the courts had granted the homeless the right to refuse treatment and return to being homeless, at a time when much petty crime up to and including simple assault was pretty much decriminalized. When some of the consequences showed up on the Upper West Side, home of limousine liberalism, attitudes changed and many of these policies were reversed.
Larry Hogue, a 52-year-old homeless crack addict, roams the streets with an assortment of weapons–a machete, a screwdriver, an ice pick–and police say he has a penchant for chasing women with small dogs and pushing pedestrians into traffic.
He’s been arrested or sent to mental hospitals at least 37 times since 1985, but always ends up back on the streets of this neighborhood, a mix of affluent high-rise apartments and rough tenements…
Hogue was released from Riker’s Island just recently after a three-month stint for vandalism. He’s already been picked up twice, once for chasing someone with a knife. The following Sunday, he was sent to Bellevue Hospital after he scratched a car with a knife, police said.
Rattled neighbors can be forgiven for doubting he would be there long.
“Everyone on the street is terrified,” said Lisa Lehr, 54, a community activist and auxiliary police officer. “We’re so afraid that when we see him, we flee indoors. He goes after women, children and small pets.”
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the crack epidemic, the subways and train stations were filled with addicts who were Black or Latino.
After rush hours, Penn Station was filled almost from one end to another. I recall exiting the subway at Columbus Circle and coming across one homeless guy relieving himself down the stairs. He politely aimed the stream away, and I was only hit with a few drops.
Many public policy disputes of the past 30 years regarding public space, land use and infrastructure cannot be understood without understanding the unspoken – the dread of this population, and the desire to keep them away. The Port Authority’s preference for a separate, airport traveler-only transit connection to the airports, for example. They didn’t want New York’s airports to become like early 1990s Penn Station, or the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Starting in the 1980s many new suburbs were built without public space of any kind, not even sidewalks, other than the streets vehicles drive on to take people anywhere – even to take a walk. If the homeless had the right to occupy public space, and public space was the place where anti-social behavior, harassment, unsanitary conditions, and other anti-social behavior were legally protected, it was decided, then all space would be private. The “defensible space” argument even extended to the limited public housing built after 1975, in the form of individual townhouses occupied by individual households that would control and protect them. With no common areas to be seized by whoever was the most violent and threatening.
Things are somewhat different today, but still the same. With the opioid epidemic many of the new homeless are White, like back in the old days on the Bowery, and young, like back in the days of the Oprhan Trains.
In San Francisco, where the problem is far worse than here, more than 50 percent of those living on the street have come from outside the city. For each one housed, two new ones arrive.
A new citywide report shows that homeless tents and structures have risen by 285-percent in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in the last four months.
San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson tells ABC7 News there is a rise in homeless people coming from out of town.
“My people are telling me there are unhoused folks coming from out of town basically trying to get themselves on a list for housing. Some are being released from jail and sent here from Stockton, from Lake County, so they’re coming from all over.”
Kelley Cutler is with the Coalition on Homelessness. She says she has helped pass out more than a thousand tents.
“How many weeks are we into this pandemic and we still don’t have a place for folks who are forced to sleep on the streets?” she asked.
The city says more than 1,000 homeless individuals have been moved into hotel rooms but that is far less than the seven to eight thousand talked about early on.
This trend of troubled and troubling people being shipped elsewhere certainly predates the COVID-19 pandemic (or crack or opioids or the 1980s or the 1990s).
The solution is cheap and simple: As cities see their homeless populations grow, many are buying one-way bus tickets to send people to a more promising destination, where family or friends can help get them back on their feet.
San Francisco’s “Homeward Bound” program, started more than a decade ago when Gov. Gavin Newsom of California was the city’s mayor, transports hundreds of people a year. Smaller cities around the country — Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Medford, Ore., among them — have recently committed funding to the idea.
And in Seattle this past week, a member of the King County Council proposed a major investment into the region’s busing efforts, fearing that the city was on the receiving end of homeless busing programs from too many other cities.
But do these transport programs actually help people find stable housing? For many of those offered a bus ticket, they do not.
Jurisdictions everywhere are trying to shuffle those folks off to someone else. You want an honest discussion of the issue? You have to look to an outside the box, to a blogger that is not part of any of the political tribes, and is wise enough and open minded enough to have no illusions.
A certain percentage of the people living on the street are mentally ill. Back in the 1970s and 1980s we, as a society, decided not to hold them in institutions anymore. Liberals felt the facilities were overcrowded, underfunded, cruel, and miserable. They asserted that it was illegal to detain people against their will so long as they didn’t pose an immediate danger to themselves or others.
Conservatives didn’t believe it was the government’s role to provide care for such people and they certainly didn’t want to pay for it. For better or worse asylums were dismantled. There was a vague plan to house former patients in smaller neighborhood group homes funded by churches and philanthropic associations with a bit of government support, but that never quite worked out. So there isn’t anywhere for these folks to go and we’ve all quietly gotten used to them living rough on the pavement.
There’s a segment of the homeless population that struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. This group frequently overlaps with the mentally ill. Psychological stress is sometimes self-medicated with booze and drugs. Other times substance abuse leads to mental illness. Either way the results are similar.
At the moment there is no plan for how to manage these people so each neighborhood, each town, each state plays Whack-a-Mole shuffling them from one jurisdiction to another hoping they’ll become someone else’s problem. San Francisco has historically chosen not to drive the homeless out of the city so we have a disproportionate concentration here. If San Francisco ever did decide to crack down in earnest it would be a painful day for whichever towns absorbed them instead.
A comment on the blog post.
I don’t mean to oversimplify but it darkly amuses me that in wacky California plastic straws are an emergency but streets filled with human feces and millions of dirty needles are acceptable.
If for no other reason than public safety and health, the tolerance of street living cannot continue. Rebuild the asylums; call them something more modern and humane-sounding if that makes it more palatable, but the incurable mentally ill and lifelong substance abusers must be placed, against their will if necessary, into facilities where they cannot create unsafe and unsanitary conditions for the rest of us.
Just this week my husband had business at our city hall, which is nearly always surrounded by homeless people. One such person approached him, demanding money, after he parked his car and was headed inside. My husband declined, the man was belligerent, and my husband was able to evade him and get inside the building. Came back out to find the gentleman had used a rock to scrape up the side of the car. Could have just as easily used the rock on my husband. Or a knife. This is not acceptable in a civilized society.
And the response.
I understand your position. So let me restate mine. Crazy liberals don’t want people held against their will. And crazy conservatives don’t want to pay for the facilities that would get the mentally ill and/or drug addicted off the streets. Jails have become de facto holding tanks for many of these individuals, but the state is broke and has decided to decriminalize no-violent activity as a cost saving measure.
Society doesn’t want to deal with the people living on the street. So we absorb the consequences of not having a solution.
NYC neighborhoods are also looking to shuffle off the troubled and troubling. Trying to shuffle the addicted and mentally ill to some other neighborhood, always speaking of their concern for the welfare of the mentally ill, never facing the reality that decades of self-dealing by older generations and various interest groups limit the money available to take care of them.
News of the hotel’s repurposing traveled fast: In July, a group of West Side residents and business owners assembled on Facebook, calling themselves “Upper West Siders for Safer Streets.” They intended to protest the move of 283 unhoused men into the neighborhood. The language of safety attempted to conceal, as it often does, the feverish prejudice fueling the project. Comments were racist, derogatory, and encouraged the use of violence against Lucerne residents.
Later, when the relocation of the men was contested in court, a judge would ask the city’s lawyer the same question. Why was the city forcibly relocating the men of the Lucerne? The lawyer would struggle to answer. The decision to move the men into the Upper West Side hotel was made in the heat of the moment, she would claim: an emergency measure intended to save lives while the coronavirus streaked through the city’s shelters. The Lucerne was always meant to be a temporary situation. Now that the city had time to think, to consider, it had hit upon the Radisson as a more suitable location. At the Radisson, the city maintained, the men would be “closer to medical care” and have “more space for on-site services.”
That is in Downtown Manhattan, which didn’t want to become the city’s new Bowery either. Some don’t want those services, if it means not being able to use the substance they are addicted to.
Right now the City Council is proposing to require all new hotels to go through a torturous, costs exploding review process simply because DeBlasio tried to finesse it by using new hotels as de facto homeless shelters that didn’t have to be approved as homeless shelters.
From the last year, PIX11 has closely examined the homeless crisis from all angles, including bold protests from working class residents in Maspeth, over New York City Homeless Commissioner Steven Banks’ proposed conversion of a Holiday Inn Express Hotel into a homeless shelter.
Talk turned into action Thursday night, as dozens of working class residents boarded three charter buses in Maspeth, Queens and rolled to Winsor Terrace, Brooklyn to take their fight right to NYC Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Banks’ doorstep.
New York’s Department of City Planning held its first public hearing last Friday on the contentious, citywide hotel text amendment, which would require developers to undergo a lengthy special permit process in order to build a hotel anywhere in the five boroughs.
The proposal, which is widely seen as a political favor from Mayor Bill de Blasio to the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council, would force hotel builders to go through a public review process — similar to the city’s nine-month rezoning process — and get approval from the City Council in order to build a hotel.
Oh, that’s what it’s about huh? The hotel workers’ union doesn’t want new hotels to open in the future to replace those that shut down, providing jobs for hotel workers, because it wants people to stay at AIRBNBs instead? By the way, that’s “Governor” DeBlasio, isn’t it?
Even poor neighborhoods such as East New York don’t want more homeless people, either in purpose built “hotels” or official shelters.
Brooklyn’s shelters are heavily concentrated around Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, Crown Heights, Flatbush, Brownsville, and Ocean Hill. With a combined population of 933,000, according to data from the 2010 US Census, these neighborhoods are home to 112 shelters. (This figure, which comes from a May city comptroller’s report, varies depending on the chosen definition of “shelter,” which can include halfway homes, in-patient psychiatric facilities, and other institutions whose clients aren’t necessarily homeless.) The rest of the borough, with a combined population of 1.57 million, is home to only fifteen. Banks estimates the number of shelters in East New York alone at fifteen.
“It’s mind-boggling,” he told me, referring to the “shelter industrial complex” that has developed to accommodate the new arrivals. “The City of New York refuses to truly deal with the homelessness crisis that’s facing the community,” he said. “It’s disgusting. You have communities like ours, who are oversaturated with shelters. Then it becomes an issue of ‘them against us.’”
As for money, the city had far more of it for housing and social programs in the 1980s than it has since 2000, thanks to retroactive pension increases for NYC public employees. A connection no one in politics wants to make. In retaliation for Mayor DeBlasio briefly, at one time, making noises about police reform.
The Sergeants Benevolent Association is spearheading the effort, emailing a letter to members Monday urging them and their families and friends to take pictures to document the decline of the city.
“As you travel about the city of New York, please utilize your smartphones to photograph the homeless lying in our streets, aggressive panhandlers, people urinating in public or engaging in open-air drug activity, and quality-of-life offenses of every type,” says the letter from SBA President Ed Mullins, a major critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Knowing what I do about where the city’s money goes and how that has changed, I responded with this post comparing spending on the poor with soaring pension costs, and the “documenting the decline of the city” stopped.
When you know what I do about state and local government revenues and expenditures (and I’ve worked very hard to make that possible), much of what you hear about state and local government in the media is really aggravating. Because you know what is being reported is misleading at best, and deceptive at worst…
I’ve been following these issues for a long time. And it that time, the only people anyone has dared to tell that they were taking too much out, not putting enough it, and had to be more fair to the rest of us is the poor. That wasn’t wrong, and it wasn’t to their detriment. But to continue blaming them for our problems 20 years after the whole “welfare reform” era, the facts be damned, is the height of chutzpah.
So now it’s the poor, the immigrants, and the $billionaries. Not the beneficiaries of retroactive pension increases, and the politicians they control. There is a cycle, in every administration, of the Administration for Children’s Services being first in line for budget cuts (along with parks, libraries and infrastructure), because its funding is not locked in by contracts and pension deals and other deals. Followed by a “scandal” in which the press reveals the widespread deaths and torture of children known to the agency, which failed to follow up. Then the firing or resignation of its director, and a “reform.” Over and over.
Getting back to homeless adults, the personal is often at odds with ideology. At one point, moving into the married with children phase of life, the one-time President of the City’s Coalition for the Homeless, which used litigation to establish the right of every poor, mentally ill or addicted person from anywhere to shelter in New York City at city residents’ expense, moved to the suburbs – where no such obligation exists. Just as, apparently, it does not exist on the Upper West Side, home of limousine liberalism. This was duly noted and widely discussed.
There is, I have often said, only one anti-poverty program that enjoys widespread support across the ideological spectrum. Exclusionary zoning, limiting entire areas to expensive and expensive to live in single-family homes, often in neighborhoods with no sidewalks, where every trip is by private automobile. Thus making sure the poor and troubled, and their fiscal, quality of life and (sometimes) public safety burdens are shifted to someone else, somewhere else. Forget homeless shelters. Or even new, market-rate multi-family housing. How about just allowing homeowners to add a second unit to their house, when they no longer have children at home to fill it? The freedom to use their own property.
I want to revisit a conference I attended at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy sponsored by Fieldstead and Company back in October of 2019. I was one of the invited speakers and I had a minor clash with some of the other presenters. There was a distinction made between government regulations and private contractual agreements. Some speakers insisted that while it was not the place of governments to dictate what owners can and can’t do with their own property, it’s perfectly appropriate to have a private home owners association restrict all sorts of things. The people buying into such communities were doing so voluntarily. They choose to live with those specific covenants and codes. But the government had no business interfering with private property in the same way.
I pointed out that large chunks of the country have municipal and/or county mandates that all new construction must be incorporated within a private home owners association. So I asked if it’s illegal to build or purchase a home without all manner of onerous and picayune private controls, is that really voluntary? And what legal justification would local governments have for mandating such private communities in the first place? Haven’t people been building homes for centuries and managing just fine without HOAs?
My inquiry was met with complete silence from the panel. No one had any desire to address the issue. And that was my point. They chafed at some government rules that infringed on their liberties, but turned a blind eye to others that served their interests. The panel wasn’t really interested in liberty. They were preoccupied with a very specific and highly limited interpretation of their favorite kinds of freedom – mostly the ability to own things and control their neighbors’ behavior in particular ways. What we have everywhere is a symbiotic relationship between private interests and government bodies that work cooperatively to guarantee specific outcomes.
Nobody has completely clean hands. I will never forget reading a Daily Newsarticle back in the 1990s that I can’t find now. It was about tragedy that was so terrible that I can’t help remembering it decades later. A sex offender had been let out of prison. There was nowhere for him to go, because no one would have anything to do with him. Eventually he pleaded for a childhood friend in the Bronx to take him, and that friend took pity and did so. The Christian thing to do. The sex offender subsequently raped and murdered his friend’s teenage daughter.
That article – a brief, matter of fact description of the crime and arrest – was for me freighted with meaning. What a horror! Would I have been willing to take on that burden, that risk? Sacrificing yourself is one thing. Sacrificing your child, your spouse, your family is something else.
There are those who prefer to think of the problems of our most troubled and troubling neighbors as strictly a matter of good and bad choices, and others who prefer to think of them as being strictly the consequence of good and bad circumstances. Actually both factors are present, leading to four possible combinations: good circumstances and good choices, good circumstances and bad choices, bad circumstances and good choices, bad circumstances and bad choices.
Good circumstances and bad choices may be found in the story of this formerly wealthy family, with an alcoholic father and three kids who were kicked out of prep school, one of whom became a drug addict and dealer.
The Stroh family found their wealth and legacy disappearing. As their fortune dissolved in little over a decade, the family was torn apart internally by divorce; drug busts, as one sibling after another was thrown out of boarding school; disagreements over the management of the business; and disputes over the remaining money they possessed. Even as they turned against one another, looking for a scapegoat on whom to blame the unraveling of their family, they could not anticipate that even far greater tragedy lay in store.
There are now multiple series of YouTube videos interviewing people who had tragically horrible circumstances and then, perhaps understandably, made bad choices. “What was your childhood like. Did you have both your parents?”
Bad circumstances, perhaps with good choices that didn’t work out.
All of which may or may not be true, but there are probably many more like them that are true.
And pretty good circumstances and bad choices.
Other circumstances bad choices.
There are people who are vulnerable to making bad choices, and not being able to recover. With no support, the mistakes of youth can put you in the wrong lane with no way out.
Yes, people often make poor choices. But the difference between bouncing back and entering free fall has a lot to do with the larger structure of society. How forgiving is the culture? What is the cost of failure? What are the economic alternatives once you’re down and out? How many barriers get in the way? America perceives poverty and failure as infectious diseases that must be avoided at all costs. The reality is that poverty is mostly a temporary condition that many people can pass through on their way to a better life. That passage can be brief or poverty can become a permanent condition. It isn’t always about how smart or industrious or virtuous a person is. It’s really about how many second chances society is willing to grant. In America today… you don’t really get a second shot.
And to think, as a matter or “racial justice,” or rather to increase state and local government revenues for to the political/union class to spend on itself (or make up for what they have already promised themselves), there is now a big push to increase access to all kinds of potentially addictive substances and self destructive activities – from cash out refis so you can spend away your home, to gambling, to narcotics. Make the bad choices even more accessible, right there on your smartphone, in a second, 24 hours a day. But this time lets make sure some minority owned businesses, and not just big corporations such as Purdue Pharma cash in.
These people are out there, and between economic collapse, family collapse, moral collapse, and another drug epidemic, there are more and more of them, looking for a place to go.
Oh, but we’ll shift money from criminal justice to help and support! Just like those alternatives to the mental hospitals promised back in the 1960s.
Of course New York City should do the right thing and not have it cost anything or cause a problem for anyone is a nice ideological position to take. It’s also unethical, immoral, self-serving and hypocritical, just like all the other ideological positions. The problem is intractable, which is why I haven’t blamed the Mayor or the Governor for it. But for transit riders, forced to pay more for less for 20 years, the question is, why the subway? Because the politicians and their organized supporters, who drive everywhere, don’t use it?
Is it too much to ask for any media outlet, any “leader,” any candidate for Mayor of City Council, to address these difficult issues honestly? To address the issue directly, rather than obliquely through discussions of restrooms and hotels? I guess that isn’t going to get pageviews, ad dollars, campaign contributions, endorsements. Do people have a right to be left along in their self-serving hypocrisy?
Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur.